Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Cold River Bath.


 
I climbed up into the hills today, the same hills I used to camp out in many years ago, sometimes with friends and sometimes not. It wasn't camping with a tent of course, just finding somewhere sheltered and then lying there till morning looking through the trees at the stars, confident in the vague hope that there were probably no strange characters wandering about. In the morning, stiff and sore from lying on the hard ground, the best remedy for the aches and pains was to jump into the freezing cold water of the Shimna river and stay there as long as possible and hope no-one was about to run off with my clothes. I've never felt so clean. Breakfast was fruit and the promise of coffee when I got back down out of the forest into Newcastle. I thought today of suggesting reliving that part of my youth to my wife and then thought better of it.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Church bells and kidney stones.

I've just set myself up for a fall. On this little afternoon with its thin light and the suggestion of approaching spring, I read yet again Camus' devastating little story "L'Envers et l'Endroit", the title that he gave also to the collection in which the story appears. I've never read anything so shocking, tender, depressing, sweet and uplifting in all my reading days. It makes me want to lie on my bed smoking a cigarette (even though I don’t smoke) and contemplate life with all its vague deceptions and uncertainties; to watch it through a net curtain on the surface of which the soft, shy sun throws down the shadows of a tree whose heavily-leaved branches sway gently but hypnotically in the heatless, sunny quietness. Through the open window the strains of a Church bell announce a death; from the flat below a howl and a squeal announce a birth and I'm caught in the middle. As dear Albert asks, "One man thinks, another hollows out a grave for himself: what's the difference between the two?" Surely we all need to be both, this side and that, but I'm no good with my hands. And what about the university graduate with the bitter soul who served me up this coffee that's now gone cold? Where does he fit in? But now that I’m able to read again maybe my recent depression is beginning to lift after an unreasonable length of time. Maybe I expelled it along with that kidney stone. On the other hand I might descend into the depths and ponder hollowing out a grave for my bones.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Getting Married in Prison.

The night before Jim got married the other inmates on his wing of the prison poured buckets of water over the small exercise yard knowing that the heavy freeze would turn it to ice by morning. As soon as the cells were unlocked, and while it was still dark, Jim was dragged out of bed, stripped and bundled along the corridor past the kitchens and out into the full, searching glare of the spotlights that rained down on the yard.

In no time he was on the ground being dragged by the ankles over the rough ice to the cheers of the whole wing. Prison warders changing shifts watched the prank being played on the groom from a distance, amused: although the perimeter of the jail was as tight as a drum the regime within the walls was relaxed. Politics, Irish prison politics.

When Marley thought Jim’s butt had been slid about on the ice for long enough he called time on the pre-wedding entertainment and the men went in for breakfast laughing and shouting and leaving Jim to pick himself up off the wet, bloodied ground and drag his numb, lacerated ass in after them.
He ached all over, but the pain didn’t really kick in till the hot water of the shower started to thaw his frozen cheeks. Some of the other men started to think they had gone too far when they saw the damage but most just laughed. Someone tried to turn his shower tap to cold. He spent the next hour lying on a bed in the sick room with the two nurses picking gravel out of the wounds that ran from his shoulders to his ankles, wincing with every drop of antiseptic they poured into them. He was to be married in a few hours.

At 10 o’clock the bridal party arrived at the prison gate along with the permitted 10 guests, all bundled into two minibuses. It took from then till noon to put them all through security, checking out the flowers, wedding cake, top hats and the frills and flounces of dresses for drugs, knives and whatever else might be smuggled in.

The over-excited sniffer dogs, the searching hands of the guards and the smell of the tiny search rooms each honoured guest had to pass through on his own soon dampened the party spirit, but the sense of anticipation revived as the appointed hour for the wedding drew near and all was in place.
The guests at most weddings are usually anxious to get to see the bride as she makes her entrance, but at this wedding it was the groom everyone waited eagerly to see; most of the guests hadn’t seen him for a few years.

When the wedding party was settled in the small chapel and the flowers had been stuck in a vase, the music Carol had brought along with her started playing through a speaker at the front. Prison guards took their places at the back, and a door at the side opened letting a nervous-looking Jim into the room accompanied by a minister. He was limping and seemed stiff and uncomfortable, but Carol thought he looked good in the suit she had bought for him and had brought along when she visited the previous week.

 Fifteen minutes later it was all over, they were married. Fifteen minutes was all the prison allowed for the preposterous frivolity of a wedding, and fifteen minutes was all that was needed. A quick prayer, a hurried reading and two almost inaudible “I do”s and the deed was done, but there was still the reception.

Filing out past the prison guards, Jim, his bride and their collection of family and friends all looking ridiculous in their finery were given one small plastic glass of non-alcoholic champagne. A prison guard cut the cake, neither bride nor groom being authorised to hold a knife within the prison grounds. Fifteen minutes were allocated for greeting and congratulations then one of the guards, the only one with a sense of humour on display, lead the couple through a door into what he announced as the honeymoon suite. Everyone strained their necks to get a peek through the open door where they saw a bed and nothing else under the dim glare of a flickering fluorescent light. The door closed, leaving the guests on the other side of it along with the guards.

This was the moment Jim had been anticipating. With no marriage there had been no conjugal visits allowed but now he had a wife, and after today he would get to have sex six times a year, and today was to be the first of those times. The anticipation however soon evaporated when the door banged behind him and he was alone with Carol for the first time in three years, with his own family and Carol’s parents on the other side of the door not four feet away. How could he perform under that kind of pressure?

It didn’t seem to inhibit Carol in the slightest. In no time her wedding dress was lying in a heap on the floor so he added all his clothes to the pile, but when she ran her hand round to his back and down onto what she always said was his finest feature - his butt - he let out an agonised yell.

Carol jumped back grabbing her dress off the floor, covering herself with it, shocked and bewildered, not knowing what she had done wrong. The gathered family on the other side of the door fell silent. One of the guards burst into the room giving everyone a ring side view of Jim’s lacerated body, the wounds freshly opened by the putting on and taking off of his wedding clothes, blood trickling down his back and thighs onto the floor, the wedding bed still unused.

Another date had to be set for the consummation of the wedding of Carol to prisoner 123456/789.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Murder at the Quacking Duck.

The Quacking Duck was a night club in the basement of a hotel in Beirut till a shell landed on it on New Year’s Eve at the turn of a year back in the seventies. Magda had just finished a set with the band shortly before midnight and was stepping down from the small half-moon stage. I had been waiting for her at a table at the back of the smoky room along with Zainab and Nabil. That’s when the shell hit.

The lights were dim; the applause was weak and half-hearted at that time of night before the main act came on to see in the New Year; we were all tired after the long bus ride up from Latakia where Zainab and Nabil had arrived by boat from Alexandria the previous night.

The shell must have hit just as I turned my head away from the stage to see if the bar was clear enough to let me go and order more drinks. There was a confusion of noise and light and sudden movement. In an instant I realised that I was lying on my back with a small, round table lying on my stomach, its legs sticking up in the air inelegantly, but I couldn’t figure out why. Why had the world been re-arranged without me seeing it happen? Why was I looking through swirling dust at the ceiling? Why was Zainab lying on the floor with her skirt pulled that far up? Everything was wrong but there was no-one to tell and I didn’t know exactly what it was that wasn’t right.

“I’ve fallen into a coma”, I thought, “I’ve had a stroke. I have to break the spell”.

So I tried to speak and move. That worked. Forcing air and sound out from between my dry lips was the first act of rehabilitation, the start of the long process of putting things right, bringing order back into life, but it was only the first tiny step.

Bit by bit reality sunk in, pieces of a jigsaw started coming together turning chaos very gradually into order, but many pieces were missing or in the wrong place. Some bits got moved round in my brain as other people joined in. Someone started to moan, then another. As the reality of pain kicked in moans turned to screams, but Zainab wasn’t making any sound and she didn’t move. Sirens blared. Water gushed from a fractured pipe. Noise began to build and men started walking around the room, taking long strides to avoid standing on whatever was in their way, and the world was sitting at an odd angle.

Someone bent over Zainab then straightened again and came over to me. A weight was lifted from my chest, dust poured into my mouth. Some dark, towering figure kneeled beside me and I could feel hands running up and down my body. I was rolled over. I was on my feet. I had grit in my eyes. There was shouting. I was standing in the cold night air in a wonderhell of sirens and flashing lights and the moon made the sea all starry with tiny, yellow pinpricks of light.

Can there be life without a bottom?


"So this is life then; it's not quite what I expected" said the one I had decided to call Flute on account of his melodic voice.
"What exactly did you expect? I asked him.
"Something a lot less ..... colourful. I think that's the word you use for it."
"Is your own planet not colourful?" "Everything is what you call dark green there".
 "That's odd", I said trying to imagine a world of dark green. "Anyway sit down and have a cup of tea", I told Flute.
"I can't" he said. "Why?" "I haven't got a bottom", he explained.
I thought about that statement for a while and couldn't get my head round the notion of not having a bottom.
"What are bottoms like?" Flute asked me.
Again I sat in silence for a while never having been asked such a question before. I didn't know how to begin answering Flute's enquiry. Flute filled the silence by asking, "Will you show me your bottom?" I made it clear that that wouldn't be happening.
"What does it look like?" he asked.
"Well I've never really seen my own bottom", I told Flute as I sat on it on the other side of the table from him, creating a buffer zone between us.

"Would you like to see it?" he asked me.

"Not particularly. Maybe if you watch more TV or go to the cinema you'll see a few bottoms there", I suggested but Flute wasn't too keen on the idea.
"Why won't you just show me yours?" he asked again. "Is there something wrong with yours?"
"NO", I shouted defensively. "My bottom is perfectly normal".
"Then your bottom would be a good one for me to see if it's average", he said, obviously thinking that his logic had defeated my objections and I would have to oblige.
"I said normal, not average Flute. And no. We don't show each other our bottoms and that's the end of it", I said a bit crossly, hoping to close down the conversation.
"But people on TV show their bottoms you said" he replied looking genuinely confused.
"Why won't you show me your bottom? I've never seen a bottom?"
"Oh sit down Flute", I ordered.
"But I don't have a bottom to sit on".

Saturday, 6 August 2016

Lissadell Breeze.

There's an old log on the shore at Lissadell, right where the shingle meets the fields. It's lain there for as long as I've been holidaying in County Sligo and weeds grow up round it. I like to take a few beers along when I go to sit on it on a summer evening to smell the seaweed and listen to the curlews and lapwings and watch the oyster catchers on their long legs running on patches of wet sand. After a while , especially if I'm tired, I shuffle on down to sit on the stones and rest my back on the decaying lump of tree and take long looks at the sky while I take long slugs from a bottle. I'm not the only one who finds peace and rest at that old log. Dogs seem to cock their legs at it too.

Sunday, 17 July 2016

Ready for happiness.

At long last, after many years of longing I think I might just be ready now for happiness. Certain things have passed, other things are no more and this cold, sunny afternoon has distilled into a drop of pure emotion.

A small, empty piazza in Rome comes to mind, with pigeons that lift away on noisy wings from the dusty pavement. I sit down on the bench under a tree. High walls on every side with shuttered windows to keep the heat out of small apartments. No movement of air.

Two tables with a few chairs outside a dark doorway: a café bar. I drag myself over and go through the door and the air is cool, but stale. Cigarettes, fried food, beer. A girl with greasy hair tied back sets a beer on the counter. I pay for it. I drink it and go back outside to the bench beneath the tree.

By now the sun has moved and the piazza is pretty again with the shutters open and girls passing through it going somewhere and I know I'm ready for happiness.

Friday, 15 July 2016

The sky leaks, Brel bleeds and I cry.


It’s a long time since I’ve seen rain leak so heavily from the sky - it makes me feel quite righteous for having wrecked myself cutting the grass last night instead of putting it off until today. Jacques Brel is bleeding mournfully out of the radio in the café and when his words combine with the rain dripping from my hair and with the thin morning light and the heavy smell of coffee grinds in the air, the resulting melancholy rises around me like steam. The rain bounces off the cars and empty pavement outside like Brel’s “perles de pluie”. It washes down the window I’m sitting beside distorting my view of the street, maybe also my view of life, as the poet rhymes “Bonheur” with “Coeur”, “malentendu” with “le temps perdu”. I could cry.

And in walks Annie, drenched, hair stuck to her cheeks and the warmest smile outlined by the reddest lipstick and turning each “perle de pluie” into another extravagant adjective. I’m no longer in Belfast as she smiles at the room and walks past me to the counter; I’m in Paris, café at the bottom of Rue Moufftard, and it’s still raining, the end of December, and she isn’t Annie she’s Maggi, but the lipstick is just as red. She’s wearing the big, creamy, ankle-length coat I bought her to cover up her bump and keep it warm. My heart swells.

Now I’m definitely going to cry. I’ll go outside so that people, if they look at me, might mistake my tears for “perles de pluie”.

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Smoking all the way back to Paris.

Tony's a flying instructor who drinks in the café I drink in early most mornings. He always takes his second cup of coffee outside to a rickety table for a smoke and he smokes French cigarettes and the smoke leaks back into the café through the louvered air vent in the big shop front window and wraps me in nostalgia and I'm right back in Paris.

A hot afternoon in Ahmedabad.

There were flies in the small café but at least it was cool. The chink of plates and cutlery and the low buzz of conversations gave the impression of busyness, but the busyness wasn't happening round me; I sat on my own slightly away from the other customers. From a pot plant just outside the window a faint breeze wafted a whole summer of hyacinth scent in my direction. The smell wrapped itself round me like grave clothes. I found it nauseating and it stayed with me the rest of the afternoon. Even the heavy smell of cumin drifting in from the kitchen was no match for the sickly, deathly hyacinth. The television was turned up loud though no-one seemed to be watching it. The music from the adverts screamed in my head and a football commentator raced faster than the ball he was chasing with his eyes and voice and even the mad dash of red and yellow football shirts that I caught in the corner of my eye were deafeningly loud.
 
I walked back to the hotel reeling from an afternoon of sensory overload beneath an over-headed sun. Children kicked cans up and down the street and shop keepers shouted at each other. Scooters scooted around me like demented wasps at the end of summer and it wasn't until later, in the cool of the evening,  that I began to recover from the day's assaults.
 
At the hotel buckets of water were brought to my room for me to bathe in. Afterwards a sprinkler revived the tired looking lawn while I sat on the veranda. Alcohol would have been too heavy so I ordered a nimbu pani and let the lush garden hidden from the rest of Ahmedabad soothe my eyes and heard. The sounds of the city couldn't reach me from the other side of the high walls: I could have been in a desert rather than in the middle of a dense and clamorous urban sprawl.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Looking out over Naples.


The man leaned against the cold metal rails of the balcony three stories above the street and lit a cigarette. He drew on it deep and slow with long intervals between each drag and let the smoke out through his nose as slowly as he was able. and all the while he looked out over the street below and enjoyed being solitary, brooding and Meursaultesque.
 
 Young people sauntered and dallied in the street and late buses cruised about under the brusque control of drivers who wanted to get home. In the distance over roof tops the man kept an eye on funnels of boats at the docks. The smell of fried food wrestled with the smell of the docks and the street, each taking its turn at dominating the others, but once his cigarette was smoked the man let the smell of the sea win and his imagination turned to scented islands, albatrosses and dusky maidens. The mournful call of fog horns and sirens raised the tension in his breast as did the wail of trains carrying away the cargo brought from faraway places by ships, and he let the night get swallowed up in dreams that tasted of salt and coconut.

Ancient and forgetable.

The world was already old when I was born. I tumbled into its ancient, incomplete story just as one day I will drop out of it, unnoticed by most and soon to be forgotten. Even the memory of me will one day be gone; it will probably survive a while in the minds of my grandchildren but then people will stop talking about me, descendants will look at family photographs, point and ask who I am, and no-one will have an answer. My own grandparents' faces are still easily recalled among my siblings but my children cannot recognise them. My great grandparents are now only dark, faceless impressions, ghostly memories, though I do remember the hearses that took away their bodies so I assume they must have been real at some time. By the time I follow after them there will be no trace left to say that they were here other than faded ink on parchment that itself will one day crumble and fall apart. But for now my birth and childhood are vividly held in my parents' minds. My brothers hold other parts, and yet more episodes sit half-forgotten in the unstable memories of school friends. Most of the people I have met along the road have already thought it not important to hold onto whatever snatches of life we shared briefly. My children take care of other impressions and my wife of others still. As one by one their memories or bodies will fail, a part of me will die till there is nothing left.

A cafe in Vienna.



It was an old café with polished tables and high-back, leather chairs. It was an old part of town. The customers were old too, not necessarily in years, but in taste and status. They took breakfast in this particular café perhaps because of its air of endurance, and there they checked the state of the markets from the privacy afforded by the broadsheet newspapers that they held in front of their faces. The rustling of newspapers was the only music to be heard and it wasn’t intended to create an atmosphere that was either convivial or relaxed.

 
I walked into that cafe early on a morning in December many years ago. The pavements along the narrow street were backed up with the snow that had fallen during the previous night, with little paths cleared from the front door of each building out to the road. I had just arrived in the city on the first train from Budapest. My heavy, black travelling coat was all filled up with the memories of trains and European cities, reeking of cigarette smoke and alcohol and dozens of cheap hotels. I was probably also carrying with me a strong whiff of loneliness, though in those days I didn’t know that was the name for the dull ache that I woke up with most mornings.
   

Not quite Smyrna

I stood on the deck leaning against the rail and watched. The dock was heaving with life,  people arriving or departing or just there to look for some lucky break. There were two other boats tied up along the quay. I smoked a cigarette. (I don't smoke in reality but it feels right that I should smoke for the purposes of this little memory). The sun beat down hard on my head. Three bulky, black water buffalo ambled onto the quay. Their long, curved horns were coated in red lacquer that gleamed in the fierce sunlight like bloodied scimitars. Children cried. This wasn't Smyrna quay that Ernest wrote about but it could have been.

I felt uncomfortable in my clothes. I'd slept in them all night on top of a bale of tarpaulin on the deck and watched stars appear in the late sky then fade a few hours later. At the same time the land on the port side of the boat had faded into the night as we headed south then it turned up again in the palor of a cold morning. In no time the temperature had risen again and by mid-morning waves of shimmering heat lifting from the land was distorting my vision. There were only a few shacks clustered around the quay, no town to speak of. A dusty track ran back from the sea across the narrow plain and I could see a road zig zagging up into the hills in the distance.

I could see nothing lush about the landscape. Ruth said it was lush country but it wasn't. The air smelled dry even when it drifted a mile or so out to sea to meet us in the cold morning. There were no trees. There was no grass. We stayed tied up at the quay that had no name for two hours. The sea was slack and silent and the boat hardly rose and fell at all against the land as boats usually do. The people were noisy, the sky and sea were quiet and it was too hot to go inside to the small dining room and bar and lounge. It stank of sweat and stale beer. Ruth was nowhere to be seen.

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Lake Malawi: a fine memory.

A boat lying at anchor in the bay, her rigging reaching effortlessly into the apricot skies of early morning, and hardly a ripple on the water. A low murmur of voices rises in the quietness. Three dugout canoes are paddled towards the beach through the light mists sitting on the face of the lake and men jump from them into the water to drag them up onto the sand. They unload their catches of fish; women appear from the bushes with straw baskets on their heads. The fish are soon spread out on mats to dry and I watch the scene from behind the fallen tree where I slept the night before.

A spring morning in the Mournes. Or the Italian Alps or wherever you fancy.

It's good to crawl out of a tent into the freshness of a new spring morning. Birds have beaten you to it of course and are kicking up a din somewhere off in the forest or along the edge on the lake. The sky is still kind of dark over in the west, bruised and purple looking above the water and the mountains but to the east the sun's radiance precedes it into a baby blue sky that's streaked with wisps of apricot clouds. There's no-one about for miles and the air is stained with the scent of the pine trees that grow almost down to the water's edge. You leave the tent and charge across the grass to throw yourself into the frigid, still waters of the lake and come out a few minutes later breathless, blue, teeth chattering and skin taut, and feeling more alive then ever before.

Friday, 25 March 2016

Café in Belfast

There's a man sitting outside the café that I'm in. He's sitting in the shade of an awning, just out of the sun that's beating down on Belfast and he's impeccably dressed and coiffed. He's smoking a cigarette, drinking coffee and eyeing the pretty girls walking past in light summer dresses and bouncy hair.

He could be Albert Camus.

At another table, behind the man and out of his line of vision there's a woman sitting, again impeccably dressed and coiffed, drinking coffee, no cigarette. She's watching him but pretending to be reading a magazine.

She could be Audrey Hepburn.

 
Two very stylish people, he unaware of her, she perhaps letting her imagination run wild in some fantasy featuring them both. I will him to look round and notice her. He finishes his coffee, smokes another cigarette then leaves without turning round and she goes back to her magazine.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Blue Morocco Morning.

The raucous crowing of a rooster dragged me from sleep straight into a murky soup of brain-fog, complete with gritty eyes and a stale mouth. The sky was a brilliant, clear blue in the way that only a desert sky can be but I knew nothing of it with my head still stuck under the blankets. Slowly I began to remember the night before, where I was, who I was, but it didn’t all come easily or quickly. The ache in my legs and my back started to register as they recovered from the anaesthetic of sleep. They sent short, sharp impulses to my brain prompting the recollection of the previous day’s camel ride deep into the desert, and the mental fog began to clear a bit and give way to orientation. The village, the hut I’d been given a bed in, the mutton stew ….. it all started to fit together, but not yet in a good way and I wasn’t ready to put my head out from under the blankets.

I started to count my testicles just to be sure - you never know - but half way through Kevin flung open the door and I lost track of where I’d got to and had to start over again. His loud, annoying Australian accent that I thought I’d got used to told me it was morning and we were going to be moving out on the camels. I swung my legs off the bed when he’d gone and stayed sitting there a while, the blanket still over my head, and I could feel the frigid air of the early morning travel up from the floor and it felt cold on my thighs.

Self-discipline and a scant awareness of reality helped by Kevin’s impatient nagging propelled me under the shower that stuck out of the rear wall of the hut. The morning was empty apart from the misty, faraway hills and the freezing cold water that cascaded down over me from the tank on the roof.

Standing there being flushed back to life was a resurrection experience. There was nothing but me and the morning, the water and the sky, a very early, blue Moroccan morning, with wisps of apricot-coloured cloud dragging off towards the hills. There was no concession to modesty in the form of walls around the shower, but there was no need. Just me and the barely wakening world; stunted, isolated trees and damp, brown earth leading everywhere, just one enormous cosmic shower cubicle

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Billy knows where babies come from.

"I know where babies come from," Billy told me smugly once we were alone. We were five years old and Billy was obviously quite proud to be in possession of such privileged information and was bursting to share it. At the same time he was clearly enjoying my presumed ignorance on the subject, and he knew that once he shared his insights he would no longer be superior to me, at least not on the subject of procreation: he decided to show off anyway.

"Do you know where they come out?" he continued when I offered no response. He took my silence as a cue to elaborate and he did so using words I'd never heard before so I was none the wiser, and I had no interest in knowing.

By the time Billy had exhausted all the obstetrical information he had gleaned from some unreliable source or other we had known each other all of five minutes. He had established himself as the boss and it wasn't only his worldly wisdom that set him apart; we were playing with his toy cars on his veranda at his house and he knew how dependant my family had suddenly become on his own.

Only an hour before the subject of childbirth had been broached by Billy, his mother had picked our family up at the end of a long and dirty train ride from Mozambique that had brought us to the conclusion of a much longer adventure. We'd never met this woman before and the train ride had been preceded by a six week boat ride from England, six weeks of howling gales and bored children whose parents were usually too sick to entertain them. Before that there had been tearful goodbyes in Ireland, and in my mind the details of the tumultuous process of transplanting our family from Ireland to Nyasaland became a composite impression of smells, colours, tastes, sounds and other sensations mixed together with heavy doses of anxiety, hunger, fear, vomiting, excitement and general befuddlement.

It was only a month or so before we left Belfast that with my younger brother I had been told that we were going to live in Africa; our first response was to jump up and down on our beds making what we thought were monkey noises. Later we learned what monkey really sounded like. I had sensed from the guarded whispers and knowing looks that passed between my parents over the previous weeks that something was wrong in the world, and this news explained most of it. Things had been odd, and all the oddness seemed to be linked back somehow to a man being shot on my uncle’s black and white TV while I was in the bath. The man who had been shot had shot another man and he was the president and his wife was called Jackie and that was really odd because my uncle was called Jackie too. Little did I know that for the next few years I was to perceive my life in that way, a confusing amalgam of threatening international events, the politics of a two-bit African country, passenger jets going missing over the ocean, climbing trees and learning to tell the time.

So being delivered into the cold drizzle of Africa was perhaps a bit like having to go through the process of childbirth all over again; I’m told my birth into Ireland had been unusually traumatic, and if Billy’s account was any way accurate the trauma was severe. Now it had happened again, and I had been born into Africa, a torturous process but with a pleasant conclusion.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Cold and drunk.



..... but what I do remember from that night is that someone had a fire lit when we got back from the beach and we sat near it and did more drinking and talking that we thought was remembering but we couldn't remember too straight and just agreed with each other when we talked about people and places none of us had ever heard of but we thought we sounded well travelled.
 
In the distance we could still hear the waves pounding on the rocks and after that we needed the fire to see by as well as to keep us warm when things got dark. But the night wasn't cold - it was late June but we took it for cold because we were cold from three days not sleeping and with lying asleep on the beach after being in the water then wakening up shivering and with bad tastes in our mouths.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Beach, rocks or whatever.

..... and when we woke we piled into Jake's car and drove down to the coast. We were still bleary from the late night and dull from three days drinking but we could still all sense in what direction the sea lay. We found a cove with sand and rocks and clambered down from the road where we left the car, down through the bushes and an old wrecked bus all rusty and with weeds growing out of it. The waves were pounding. The spray was leaping into the air and gulls were flying like fierce kites in the sky. There was no need for any of us to talk and we sat stunned for a while. Jake ran into the surf. We all ran into the surf then spread all our clothes out to dry on rocks and fell asleep. At four o'clock the sun suddenly lost its heat. Our clothes were still not dry and sobered with the cold of the sea we felt silly sitting there huddled up and naked so we put on the wet clothes anyway and thought about getting something to eat but none of us was hungry. Back at the cabin .....

Monday, 5 October 2015

Dead flowers and constipation.


Dead flowers and constipation were all the rage in Rangoon when Oswald was stationed there. He didn't much care for the Generals and Colonels and secretly drank to their demise every time he lifted a glass at the Fitzgerald Club. What baffled him so much was how such a constipated society could continue to be all bound up when there was so much dysentery around. People complained of little else other than the state of the toilets and the scarcity of toilet paper when they met at the club, all very lavatorial.

The Earl of Ballymoney (Bertie Banks) was a regular at the Fitzgerald Club in Rangoon for many years, right up till it closed in the late 1970s. He was an odd sort of character, an embarrassment to his family, hence his exile to the outer reaches of the Empire. However when the British Empire suddenly shrunk in the 60s the Earl found himself all at sea in a country that turned against all things British, and all that was left to him was the Fitzgerald club.

The Generals tolerated the place partly because it was a convenient place for clandestine meetings with representatives of foreign governments with whom they officially had no dealings, but also because most of the Colonels enjoyed a good brandy.

So the Earl of Ballymoney lived out his sorry days in the dubious company of Colonels, diplomats and drunken reprobates till his money ran out and the staff would no longer indulge him. He only lasted a few days after that and now lies in an unmarked corner of the Fitzgerald graveyard in the grounds of the Club. Or so they say. Our family only acknowledge him if pressed on the matter.

Monday, 28 September 2015

Savage and cruel.

The world is savagely pure tonight. Velvet sky, no clouds. The moon has lain down a milky walkway across the lake from where it's hanging, and underneath its influence the villages scattered around the plain are asleep, or at least the people who live in them are; the villages themselves are inanimate therefore are never either asleep or awake, they just ..... are.

Hyenas skulk around the huts scavenging for anything that might be remotely edible. The ground is always swept clean - snakes don't like to attempt to travel across ground devoid of cover of some sort and it falls to little girls to keep the village well swept.

Snakes, hyenas, little girls and the moon, but no sounds.

Saturday, 26 September 2015

Irish Mist


A wither of mist has threaded its vaporous fingers through the pine trees at the bottom of the garden tonight and I've opened the bedroom windows to invite it in. The problem with mist is that when it's up close you can't really see it swirling about so I can't tell if it has accepted my kind invitation, though there is a distinctly damp savour to the air, the pepper of decomposing leaves perhaps, and it pleases me, indicating that summer is definitely gone and autumn is flexing her muscles.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Belfast, on a misty morning.

A thick blanket of dank smelling mist is lying on top of the river this morning, where the warm water meets with the cold air. The water runs slowly in spite of last night's torrential rain, and there's no-one about. It's early, and the risen sun hasn't found the force to dissipate the mist, but it's vague half light has given the impression of life to the small valley.

Belfast is beautiful on misty days. The gloom is spectacular and penetrates the bones. Rats and shrews rustle tea thick grass on the river bank and foxes prick their ears and lift their noses hoping for something more substantial, like a rabbit. A solitary heron swoops slowly out of the mist and down the river bed to stand statuesque in the shallows, patient as ever.

Friday, 24 July 2015

Sitting a while in Donegal.

Here I sit in the early morning on the bench outside my rented cottage in County Donegal, mug of steaming tea in hand as I survey all around me. The clouds that have been sitting on top of Muckish Mountain have slipped down her sides to lie like a heap of rumpled underwear that has been dropped on the floor at someone's feet, and how she stands now, naked and unadorned for everyone to see.

Further away, and over to the west a little, Mount Errigal's freakishly smooth cone reaches for the sky, scratching it with her pointy summit and sending screes of weathered rock slithering away down her slopes back towards Gweedore.

Rolling hills, sheep, the smell of turf in the air from last night's fires; the sun battling with the clouds, sometimes winning, sometimes not, and a profound quietness made up of the wind moving leaves about on trees, insects buzzing and sheep bleating, all towards the end of a summer evening.

My soul races and soars as I look around, but then I drive into town and have my sensibilities offended at the profusion of cheap souvenir shops and people wearing "Kiss me Kwik" hats.

Monday, 6 July 2015

Nuit Extraordinaire - Birthday on an Indian Train.

It was my birthday. I woke up twenty years old and hungry. Everyone around me was still asleep, lulled and comforted by the gentle rhythm of the train to Delhi, and since we were in carriage number 26 the noise from the engine was distant enough not to disturb anyone. I tumbled and slid my way down from the wooden bunk I’d been confined to for most of the night, managing not to step on any of the passengers sleeping in tiers below me. The two bottom benches were occupied by Mr and Mrs Khan, the two above them by their four young children and the top two by me and Mrs Khan’s nephew, Kamal.

Opinion among travellers is divided on whether the top berths are best or worst. Fixed above the barred carriage windows, they leave the insomniac traveller guessing the names of the stations the train passes through during the long hours of darkness. Moreover, lying belly-up as I prefer, and with very little room between your face and the curving roof, a claustrophobe like me finds it difficult to relax. The only advantage I can think of is the wonderful view it affords of everyone’s bedtime routine; the business of rearranging luggage and children, hefty ladies changing into exquisitely embroidered night clothes behind tent-like affairs held by their daughters, the sounds and sights of night time ablutions….. no, perhaps there are no advantages to being perched on the top berth after all, except perhaps the half-whispered conversation I had with Kamal in the early hours across the narrow gulf that separated the two banks of beds.

The lower half of that murky space had soon filled with the sounds of sleeping when the lights were dimmed, and reassured that his family could not hear our conversation, Kamal spoke more freely than he had in their presence. He confided that he had recently graduated from University in Calcutta and his secret ambition was to find a job in Delhi, in the Civil Service or some such body that would provide good prospects for promotion. His family knew nothing of his plans.

“But why?” I asked. I was quite surprised at his choice of city and career. “Calcutta’s such a happening place, far more relaxed, more open and alive than stuffy old Delhi.”

I was remembering the month I had just spent feeding on the most remarkable jazz that I had never expected to find in Asia, so Calcutta had been intoxicating for me, and mellow. In reply he nodded his head down towards his sleeping family on the lower benches. “There’s only freedom in Calcutta if it’s not your home,” he snapped dryly, leaving me to speculate about whatever restrictions the Khan household imposed on him. The excitement in his voice when he had spoken about his prospects in the capital had gone now and he sounded deflated, resigned. Not only did Kamal sound resigned but he acted out the reality for me as he turned round to face the wall, pulled the blanket over his head and soon added his own night time rumblings to the dark soup of rifting and snoring that washed around the bodies on the wooden benches below.

I wandered in and out of light sleep for a few hours. That was when I clambered down from what might have been classified as the luggage rack on a train in Ireland, and I took up my usual position on Indian night trains. I swung open the heavy door at the end of the carriage and sat on the floor, my legs dangling down towards the slowly moving ground, a blanket pulled tightly round my shoulders.

The night was cold and well into darkness. Shapes loomed at me from the cool, breezy silence and then receded as quickly as they had presented themselves, giving me only a few seconds to identify and remember them. One minute the ground would fall away sharply as the tracks headed over an embankment piled high across a dried-up river bed; the next minute the carriage was being dragged screaming into a narrow passage blasted through a small hill, and I’d be confronted by chiselled rock-face, close enough to touch. I had the sense of passing through a world of shadows and danger and uncertainty.

I was uninvolved, a spectator as usual, the only living witness to all that slipped obscurely and unnoticed under the eternal turning of wheels and night. The only clarity and stability was above me in the sky. It was a more constant, dependable, all-seeing witness, the same unpolluted magnificence I had lived under in Africa as a child, as solid and mysterious as God. That sky was forbidding but gracious, to be contemplated but never challenged. It was the same sky under which Adela Quested could never bring herself to fall in love with Mrs Moore’s son Ronnie; Jean Giono’s night sky, terrible and cold, the same sky that saw Jourdan labouring with his horse and plough on his farm in Haut Provence, the sky out of which had walked his long expected saviour. It was the kind of night away from cities that Giono sums up in the simple opening words of “Que ma joie demeure”, the words that devastate me each time I lift that book: “C’était une nuit extraordinaire.” A man could lose his mind under such a sky. Or find it.

When the tracks took the train north for a while, around some hill the English hadn’t been able to blast out of their way, the commanding splendour of the extraordinary night was strangely but appropriately compromised by the first traces of light coming from the east we were trying to leave behind. A vague milkiness began to spread its influence quickly towards us, and the world, seen up till then only in negative, in shades of grey, was on its way to development into full colour and daytime textures. For that short moment I was lost between the nuit extraordinaireand the jour extraordinairethat was breaking on the world. There were no familiar points of reference, though I felt strangely contented and assured, luxuriating in a flood of mysterious grace.

I let as long a time as possible pass before returning to my wakening fellow-travellers, not wanting to get in the way of Mrs Khan doing whatever it was that she did under the imagined privacy of her changing tent and taking up rather a lot of space doing it. In the busyness of everyone else’s morning I sat on at the open door, warm in my blanket, hungry for food and whatever the coming day would bring. I watched as small groups of men came out of their villages to the banks of the river that the train had begun to follow. In no time and for miles of misty, grey morning they formed a broken chain of human islands along the riverbank, squatting in groups with their clothes hitched up around their waists and their little silver bowls of water at their feet. They chatted among themselves and watched the train rolling inland against the flow of the river. They even waved at us as they let go of yesterday’s rice and lentils. I tried imagining communal outdoor toileting in Ireland but the picture wouldn’t form, and not just because of the weather. The nearest I could get to it was the memory of a row of about 20 middle-aged men in black suits, bowler hats and orange sashes piddling in unison on the 12th of July against the wall of a church in Belfast before their long march to The Field at Edenderry, a curtain of white cigarette smoke rising to separate them from their church.

Back inside the carriage things were settling down after the morning’s first routine and a space had been cleared on the floor for a makeshift kitchen. It was easy to tell that Kamal disapproved, but he was nevertheless obliged by his aunt to pump up the primus stove while she rummaged around various bags for ingredients and utensils. Normally I prefer buying food at some of the stations along the way, passing rupees out between the bars on the windows and receiving some edible surprise in return….. or sometimes not. But on this trip I was travelling without cash because of a last minute change of plans, and although Mrs Khan didn’t know about my lack of funds, she insisted that I should eat with her family.

“We would be most honoured,” she declared emphatically leaving no room for refusal. “We are going to Delhi to pray at the Jama Masjid and we want to share food with you poor”.

Me….. poor? I suppose I was poor in that I had no ready cash on me, but I had a passport, traveller cheques, a plane ticket to Copenhagen, three pairs of jeans that I could sell…..

I was first to be fed being the guest, the recipient of alms, and victim of piety. Kamal left. Mrs Khan unwrapped a large wad of grey bread and split it. It looked grainy and dry, but she spread it thick with what looked like extremely greasy lard and laid it to one side while she warmed some oil on a pan on the primus stove and we continued to roll on towards Delhi. She cracked an egg and threw it into the pan, but the absence of the sound of sizzling told me that the oil had been all but barely warmed. The still-translucent egg was quickly scooped back out of the pan before it had the chance to congeal and it was laid on one half of the bread where it slithered around on the greasy lard before being sandwiched by the other bit of bread and presented to me: breakfast.

In most situations I can manage a fairly convincing “Yummy, my favourite” for a generous if untalented host, but not for semolina, porridge or rice pudding; nor, as I now know, for egg that has been vaguely approximated to a warmish pan; nor for grey, grainy bread spread thick with lard, but in and down it had to go. To have refused would have been rude. This was an act of religious duty for Mrs Khan, an act of sacrifice for both of us. Egg trickled down my chin and various contrived distractions allowed some bread to find its way into a trouser pocket. Delhi was still 20 hours away and the day had only begun.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Kinnegoe Bay

We had the beach to ourselves this afternoon - and a fox. We drove round to Kinnagoe Bay that lies at the bottom of a wooded hill.You need to know it's there and I've rarely been on a beach as beautiful. Quite apart from being empty, clean and isolated and good for swimming at, it fires the imagination when you know its recent history.

In 1588 one of the ships that had been commandeered to form part of the Spanish Armada foundered in the bay while sheltering from a storm the Trinidad Valencera. Those who survived were found on the shore, divested of their belongings, arms and clothes and put mercilessly to the sword. A lovely spot.

Friday, 19 June 2015

Paul in Paris

Picture him as you will, but when I first met him Paul was maybe twenty three years old, certainly no more. He was wearing a long, black, travel-filled coat and his eyes were full of fever. I had agreed to meet him in the café on the concourse of the Gare du Nord for what I supposed was a courtesy call to please his mother, my sister.

It was a busy time of year for me, September; batches of new students were arriving every week and needed to be supervised. However having missed out on the first twenty and more years of my nephew’s life I felt obliged to go out of my way, but really only for his mother’s sake as I’ve already made clear.
Paul wasn’t difficult to recognise. I scanned the tables on the concourse and as my eyes lit on the tousle-haired presence staring into an empty espresso cup I thought to myself “Goodness you look just like I did at your age”. It was him alright. I went straight over and stood in front of him and he looked up at me. With barely the trace of a smile he mumbled what sounded to me like the word “uncle”. There was no inflection of surprise or question in either his voice or his face, just the unemotional utterance of those two syllables that linked us with an invisible and indissoluble bond.
I bought him another coffee and one for myself, protesting that I hadn’t really time to stop for long. Within ten minutes he had the key to my apartment, the money to get him there on the train and the offer to stay as long as he needed.

Saturday, 30 May 2015

Sleepless night under a searching Belfast sky.

I just switched the light off a few minutes ago to try to get some sleep but I've had to power up my iPhone to tell you all about the magnificent night that's pouring in through the window onto me.

The window's wide open onto the garden and the curtains are pulled back as far as they can go. I can smell flowers and crushed pine needles, fragrances that carry over to me on the warm evening air.
And the room is flooded with the white light of the moon that seems to be balancing on top of the row of pines at the bottom of the garden like a great big football that the little boy next door keeps kicking up on top of our hedge. The moonbeams illuminate everything in the room and they even feel cold as they land on my skin as I lie roasting on top of the bed. My body looks strange in this searching light that has travelled from space into my bedroom.

Now that I'm awake again I might just thrown on clothes, not many, and go and drink whiskey in the garden and get further drenched in the moonlight over Belfast.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Chocolate Interruptus

Tuesday afternoon calls for hot chocolate, extra hot, without the toxic gunk of cream and
marshmallows spooned on top that the café chalkboard on the wall calls luxury. Patrick, the guy behind the bar, brings it to the table and I stop reading for a while to warm my hands on the hot mug and let the bitter café smell of coffee grinds swirl around my mind as it mixes with the steam from the rich, milky drink and rises towards a slightly open window, escaping into the brittle cold that holds the city in a tight, frozen grip. Banks of clouds are piling up on top of each other outside in the heavy, mobile sky, a dazzling array of hundreds of shades of grey.
  
I don’t resent the man sitting three tables away while I drink my steaming great mug of hot chocolate. I don’t resent him and I’m not angry with him, but I do wish he would shut up. He’s filling the quiet, mellow warmth of Michael’s with protracted bursts of introspection that he propels at the top of his gravelly voice in the direction of his friend, table partner or whoever the man is that sits opposite.

I try not to listen. The friend interjects from time to time when he gets the opportunity at a volume inaudible from where I sit, trying, I suspect, to indicate that there is no need to shout without actually saying so, perhaps trying to model good café etiquette, but the shouter remains oblivious. He seems a bit embarrassed, the friend. Perhaps he’s trying to be positive by being thankful that the topic of discourse in nothing more intimate than data handling research which is the topic of the shouter’s PhD.

Should he continue in that field; does he have anything original to offer; how do people feel about his wife’s area of expertise being more relevant than his?

The friend drains his coffee cup and puts it on the table with an air of finality, tidying up crumbs and putting them on his saucer as an indication that the session is now at an end. He reaches for his coat, wraps his scarf around his neck, keeps looking for a gap in the conversation to excuse himself, but the more cues he sends out the louder the shouter shouts as he gets into his stride. The friend looks at his phone, obviously willing it to ring. I wish I had his number so that I could help him out, tell him he was needed elsewhere, and pretend to be his wife just gone into labour.

Patrick behind the bar comes over at last and asks the friends if they want re-fills. The listener grabs his chance and shouts “No!” a bit too emphatically. The shouter looks shocked but still never guesses the reason for such an adamant refusal.

They leave. The mellow warmth that the noise has displaced re-occupied Michael’s. All is quiet except for the acceptable, even necessary, dull concert of café sounds – the swoosh of steam forced from a machine, the clink of cups on saucers, the dull hubbub of private conversations and the odd bang from the kitchen.

I nod over to Patrick. In a few moments he brings me another mug of hot chocolate and I give myself to the rest of the afternoon.

Morning has broken over Belfast.

A blue, empty Monday has just run its splayed, frigid fingers over the houses and streets of Belfast to summon the citizens out of slumber. The sun's rays bolted across the sky as soon as it levered itself up from behind the Craigantlet hills, and they pierced through the smeared pigeon poop on my bedroom window to embed themselves in my eyes like grit.

So I'm out of bed. The garden is  cool and dew-soaked, giving itself to any green fingered amateur who would care to wield the spade, rake or trowel that have been left strewn wantonly around the lawn, but it's too early for me to succumb to that temptation just yet; I'll take up the challenge later, but I have to indulge myself in the beauty of freezing cold water spurting from the shower in the bathroom. I must drink tea and keep thinking as far away as possible from my brain before letting it gradually encroach into this precious moment of irresponsibility
.

Sunday, 5 April 2015

Out by Raghly

It's still early, only 9.30, but I've already been in the sea out by Raghly this morning. I left the house quietly just when the dawn light was prising open the night's cover of malevolent looking black clouds to reveal the pale milkiness above.

I cycled on out the empty road and enjoyed feeling the burn in the muscles of my legs as they started to heat up. It was bitterly cold at first but I rode through the trees and soon felt the warmth of their damp, rotting leaves that keeps the heat on the ground.

The harbour was deserted; there wasn't even anyone there to walk their dog. I left my bike against the wall and walked on over the field to the long beach and just kept going till I got to the rocks that hide the stretch of sand where I like to play on empty mornings like this.

Acres of clean, pale, smooth sand, acres of neutral sky and the sun waiting just beyond the horizon before making her entrance and painting the drab landscape with her colours.

I took the satisfying, agonising plunge and swam out as far as I knew was safe then back again and when I walked, wet and wakened back to the rocks, that was when the sun made her grand appearance, spilling yellow light over the beach and the fields and blessing my wet, energised body with new peace and confidence while I stood drying in the breeze that was coming off the sea and the vague warmth of the sun’s rays.

I got dressed and left to cycle home. Back at the house and with the taste of the sea still in my mouth, I hung washing on the line that I had put in the washing machine before I went out. I made tea and took it into the garden and only then did members of the family start to struggle out of bed and join the day, oblivious to what they'd missed.

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

By the light of the silvery moon.

In Paris the moon sends soft, cold rays of crystal light to shine through an open, uncurtained, attic window and fall silently on the heated, naked bodies of two lovers who lie spent and at ease in each other’s arms on a mattress. There is no bed, only a mattress on the floor, a few chairs and a small table where they have left the crumbs of a meagre dinner, all they could afford. There is no bathroom other than the shared shower in the corridor downstairs and a toilet at the end of the mouse-infested hall. Poor in the things of this world but rich beyond measure for those few distracted moments of forgetfulness, bathing in each other’s sweat, the lovers notice not the moon but each other's bodies that it helpfully illuminates and exposes by its soft, transparent fingers that explore, caress and pry.

In Venice the same moon fires an arsenal of light that glints off the darkly disturbing waters of the Grand Canal. A cold wind glances off the same waters and whips them into tiny waves that shred the oily sheen into pieces, cold like so many bodies that have taken forced leave of this life and are doomed to an eternity in a watery grave. Gondolas ply back and forth under the romantic moonlit sky and keep the secret their narrow hulls look down upon night after night, their passengers oblivious to the madness stirred beneath them by the poles of the gondoliers as they propel them along the waters, under the bridges and into their beds. The carnival plays out under the direction of the moon whose light resurrects characters that unleash evil that has been stored in the shadows from ancient times, a rich dinner of Phoenician spells and the wine of the magic of Arabia mixed by the cathedral priests, a drunkenness that only the pure in heart can resist.

The carnival spins on while, above the low roofs of sleeping Agra, the everlasting, stolen kiss of moonlight upon marble animates the dome of the Taj Mahal. The dome pulsates. It transmits the cries of Shah Jahan and his young, dead bride across the centuries, linking their sadness to a universal network of anguished souls whose tortured separation weaves a web wherever people have been young enough to love and old enough to know. The moon is witness and the moon cries tears that sparkle but cannot soothe.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Trust Your Wind.

Algeria, Sahara, Assekrem, DesertEnzo kicked fallen leaves and twigs away from the sparse grass and eased himself down on it. He was sweating and tired from the long, slow climb along the track that rose up from the village and his legs were beginning to hurt. The blistering sun had been beating down directly on his back for half an hour or more, but as he turned to lie on the grass it shone on his face, beaming on him through the filter of the dark, shiny, green leaves of an orange tree. A breeze shifted the leaves back and forth above him throwing down an ever-moving, lacy camouflage that blended his brown body into the hard earth and the thin, brown grass. He rested for a while and enjoyed the cool currents of air that moved around the circle of shadow that swayed slowly about him, purposely trying not to think about the letter that had arrived that morning and had caused so much trouble.

Few people ever walked that track: not many people had any reason to visit the village it led to, and not many villagers ever ventured out beyond the limits of the orange groves that they worked. Oranges were the life blood of the village and had been for a long time. The make-up of the soil, the temperature, the long sunny days and the right amount of rain that fed the streams that criss-crossed the area all combined to produce fruit that was succulent and sweet, the kind of fruit that Northern Europeans associate with sunshine and well-being, luxury and holidays; fruit that was commonplace and readily available, but at the same time hinted at the exotic. What Europeans didn’t know when they picked out oranges in the supermarket on cold, dismal European mornings was that the winter snows were part of the story of their oranges every bit as much as was the summer sun. Not heavy European falls of snow of course, but a light dusting of white powder that fell once or twice every year well before any signs of new fruit began to appear.

The snow was always a welcome diversion for the villagers but it never lay for long. Frost was more common than snow, but again not a hard, heavy, northern frost that would freeze even slowly moving water, just a skein of white satin that faded away at the approach of the morning sun even before it had fully risen from beyond the mountains. But even though snow and frost were short-lived, the days of winter on the high plateau could still be bitterly cold, and on those days everyone looked forward to the return of the spring rains and the warmth of a new sun.

This was not a day like that. The winter days were well passed when Enzo set out to climb into the mountains that day, but the balmy days of spring had also gone and the heat of summer was as hostile as the cold of winter. He knew the mountains well, had chased his father’s goats up through the orange groves, higher through the rough grass then higher still, up to the stony crests of the peaks, but that had been boy’s work. Now he was a man and looking after goats fell to his younger brothers. Enzo’s job now was to oversee the orange harvest, securing the best price for the fruit and dealing with officialdom.

However these arid, rugged mountains that Enzo loved were also the barrier to his dream of a different kind of life. Beyond the mountains lay the cities on the coast, the gentle influence of the Mediterranean and the rumoured delights of modern life. The mountains were the watershed between the stony Algerian desert and the coastal plain, the watershed between village life and the bright lights. They represented either a barricade or a gateway whichever way a person chose to regard them. For Enzo’s father the mountains were the last line of defence against the evil and pollution of modern ways and influences, for Enzo those same mountains were the obstacle to a new life, he felt hemmed in when he looked up at them, but that debate wasn’t worth having.

So Enzo settled for sitting on top of the mountain gazing into the distance toward Algiers, towards Europe, towards life, or towards where he imagined those things to be, without ever seeing them. That’s why he ventured up the steep climb on such hot days when work was slack and the smell of oranges offended him beyond what he could tolerate: he loved to fantasize, to escape for a while even just in his imagination, to give himself for a few hours to the mirages that presented themselves through the desert haze: Paris, New York, Algiers …..

And then the letter arrived. It was respectfully addressed as always to Enzo’s father, but it was written in English, the language only Enzo could read and that aroused his father’s suspicions, and not unreasonably. Enzo’s uncle had written, his mother’s youngest brother, and the content of the letter was obviously directed at Enzo.
Abdelaziz had left the village five years before when Enzo was fifteen years old. He wasn’t much older than Enzo and they had grown up more as brothers than as uncle and nephew. It was with Abdel that Enzo had chased goats on the mountainside and they had dreamed dreams together and had fantasized about Europe and America. Then suddenly Abdel had left. There had been a few letters at first from Marseille where he tried to get work but then the letters tailed off and the one that had arrived that morning was the first in over three years.

The stamp wasn’t French. The letter wasn’t written in French. The content was brief, beginning with the formalities of asking after everyone’s health, but the meat of the letter was for Enzo, and it came in the form of an invitation.

According to Abdel there was plenty of work to be had in Ireland. Work on building sites, work in cafés and restaurants, work in supermarkets and on boats, and Enzo was tempted. There was no talk about pay or conditions or what life was like in Ireland, no talk trying to sell the idea, trying to convince, just a bare invitation, and Enzo had to decide. His father had immediately started talking about responsibilities, family loyalties and orange harvests that were now beyond a man of his years. He reminded Enzo that he was the only one who could decipher and respond to the business letters from the cooperative that bought his oranges. He impressed upon his son that oranges were all he knew, he wasn’t born to work for someone else – he had the family business that would one day be his own, but Ireland still sounded good.

As he climbed the track up the side of the mountain Enzo went over the arguments time and again. He knew nothing of life in Ireland but everything about life on the farm in Algeria. That thought didn’t help. He had no way of finding out about Ireland but here he had security. He had family, with everyone depending on him – parents, brothers, sisters. Enzo had never had to make a decision this big in his life before. There was no-one to help him, no-one to confide in because no-one would want him to leave.

Pressure mounted in his head and in his heart as he lay in the shade. He got up and pushed himself the last half hour to the summit of the mountain and sat with a divided heart looking north then south then north again. He had never seen the sea, didn’t know what it was, but he knew what oranges were and he didn’t want to know any longer.

Ireland. It sounded like a strange place, it had a strange sounding name, although he had heard of it. He tried to imagine the clamour of strange voices speaking a language he knew how to read and write but had never spoken. Through the imagined babble in his ears the strains of the call to prayer began to filter in, mixing and diluting the call of a new life. The voice of the Muezzin hung in the heavy air, representing security and a sense of home. The letter burned in his hands as he re-read it trying to uncover some sense of what a new life would be like, but he knew that in the end the choice would not be a reasoned one. He stood up, again looking to the north and the south. Indecision. God would decide, God of the winds and the mountains, God of goats and oranges and steamers heading out from Algiers taking the courageous to Marseille and beyond. Give God his place he told himself. Let God decide.

He stood facing along the ridge with the life of the village on his left and the possibilities of Europe to the right. He held the letter high above his head and determined that he when he let go of the letter he would follow whatever direction the wind would carry it, and he would obediently follow the breath of God.

With his eyes tightly screwed up against the fading sun Enzo slackened the fist his fingers made around the piece of paper. He opened his closed hand and trusted his future to the wind.

Monday, 16 March 2015

Crucifixion in Donegal.

Paul Charles locates the action of his novel in a place he knows well – Donegal; and it’s a place I know well too, so I can attest to how accurate he has caught the shades of local colour.

He writes convincingly about the tracking down of a murderer, exposing along the way some of the many scandalous, small-town goings-on that have some bearing on the killing in question. The victim’s demise forces the unseemly details of the lust-life of several local worthies under the nose of Detective Starrett.

Starrett’s personal demons are also paraded for the reader’s benefit as happens with many detectives who are set the task of bringing villains to justice, and those demons, as is the usual habit, come in the form of beautiful women. Two beautiful women to be exact. Which one will he chose?

But let’s be generous to Detective Starrett of the Garda Síochána na héireann (Irish Police Force – I’m sure you knew that, but just in case). The murder that exercises his little grey cells is one that has been effected in a particularly unpleasant manner: the victim has been crucified in close imitation of the fate that befell Jesus Christ.

The strangest aspect of the crime for me however is not the method of execution, or that it was carried out in a Church, or that the particular Church in which it occurred doesn’t appear to put much store by the crucifixion of Christ. What strikes me most forcefully is that the local, largely Roman Catholic, populace doesn’t seem to be too perturbed when they hear the news.

Paul Charles keeps the reader’s interest with a large shoal of red herrings as a variety of likely and unlikely candidates fall under suspicion. The reader is also most keen to discover what reason lay behind the crucifixion – wouldn’t shooting or stabbing have done the job just as well? We are also keen to discover if love is to blossom between Starrett and the state pathologist, Dr Sam Aljoe. Okay, Sam is short for Samantha, I’ll give you that but I’m giving nothing else away.

The events are as contrived as they are improbable, some of the characters larger than life and some not all that convincing, but hey – it’s a fast-paced detective novel, and one that’s worth the read.

Dust of Death by Paul Charles published by Brandon.

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Passing through Paris on a foggy evening.

Paris, Night, Lights, Pavement, Inner City, FranceI love to wander around Beaubourg on a cold, damp, night in November, to smell the burning from the fire-eater’s torches that mixes with the warm smoke given out by the chestnut roaster’s brazier, and I let them both fill my head. A cold, fresh, misty breeze touches my cheeks and moves the leaves and litter about at my feet.

All around the square, people huddle in groups or wander alone like me, and all their faces light up differently under the influence of the tall, orange flames that shoot up from the fire-eater’s mouth. The flames and the street lights land on black faces, white faces, yellow faces, all painted differently, some made to look villainous, some made to look sick, and some look far from home.

And there’s music. African drums, South American pan pipes, buskers, they all turn out tunes that have been adapted to please the Western European ear, all hoping to wrest a Euro or two from the deep, warm pockets of the rich who mingle among the crowd, and you don’t have to be rich.

There will be the taste of menace in the air. The sword-swallower, the fire-eater, the martial arts performer – any of them could make a fatal mistake but they don’t. There’s the hint of danger from groups of heavy drinkers, young and old, dishevelled and well-groomed, and I watch my back. There’s the sense of the everyday when an elderly lady with a blue rinse walks her coated poodle across the square, tip-toeing around the menace, the flames and the dirt.

And when the wandering is done I love to slip unseen into the cinema in the Centre Pompidou, to watch a sub-titled Russian film and them emerge a few hours later in a different mood when people have moved on and all that’s left are a few drunks, the leaves and litter that still swirl in the light breeze, and the cold touch of the foggy night on my face.